Stopping to Listen to Complaints

A D’var Torah for Parshat Beha’alotecha by Rabbi Dan Bronstein

I was once taught by a professional — and yes, Jewish — comedian that nothing kills humor like over-analyzing a joke — but in this case, I need to make an exception to that rule. 

The story is told of a man ailing on his deathbed, when he smells the delicious aroma of his wife’s coffee cake baking. Calling from his room he asks for some of the cake but is rejected by his wife who explains that “the cake is for the shiva.”

In short, the joke, however bleak, is funny because the wife is more concerned with preparing for the inevitable shiva rather than being engaged with her soon-to-be-dead husband. This is a joke about losing perspective and absurd behavior. Beha’alotecha — in all its complexity about purity, tribal structure, Passover observance, and examples of poisonous speech — also contains a good dollop of absurdity, in this case, Jews complaining about food.

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You have to ask why, after redemption from slavery, after receiving Torah, after receiving daily manna from heaven, why complain about the food? During the long wanderings in the wilderness, the House of Israel gets the reputation of being a “stiff-necked” people. Maybe God’s catering left something to be desired, but this seems hardly the time or the place to complain over menu choices. 

The Israelites are very specific in their complaints. First they demand meat, but it doesn’t end there. Following their beef over the lack of meat in their diet, the Israelites also bemoan the fact that, since their redemption from slavery, they have been deprived of such delicacies as cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. I too would bemoan living without garlic and onions. But it sort of reminds me of another joke about Jews complaining over food: Two Jews are dining together at a restaurant. “This food is terrible,” says one, to which the other adds, “And the portions are too small.”  

Beyond the absurdity of the moment, this episode is a study of people who, amidst a profound experience, focus instead upon apparently inconsequential trivialities, in what seems to be a disconnect with reality. Commentators have noted the Israelites’ complaint of a shortage of meat is not backed up by the text. 

So instead of simply scratching our heads about the absurdity of complaining about God’s less than stellar catering, perhaps we should try to understand what such grievances are really expressing. Melons and leeks aside, the Israelites’ anger and frustration are all too real; we need to take such feelings seriously and with curiosity.

Maybe the Israelites bemoaning about a non-existent meat shortage instead is a way to highlight their genuine anxiety about surviving the wilderness. And maybe complaints about produce, however seemingly frivolous, really point toward the sense of disorientation faced by the Israelites as they were moving away from slavery even while aspiring to become a nation of priests. And maybe complaining about melons and onions is really a misplaced expression of fear over their uncertain future, as individuals, and as an emerging people.

Think back to the wife in the joke. Perhaps underneath the absurdity lies a deeper truth: It is too painful to engage with her dying husband, but she can still cling to the value of hospitality that she will lean into when her community comes to comfort her at shiva.

To be sure, all of us have been subjected to the degradation of language. Sadly, all too often, lying and genuinely mean-spirited speech have been normalized. Even more so, ours is a world in which hate is expressed freely. However onerous and difficult, I believe we need to pause and ask why language is being misused.

Find more commentaries on Parshat Beha’alotecha.

Stopping to listen to and attempting to understand the dissatisfaction of others does not constitute acceptance of offensive language or ideas. Striving to understand our ideological opponents does not mean that we have to compromise our own beliefs. Even if we vehemently disagree with the complaints of others, though, perhaps we have to listen and discern the genuine concerns underlying such dissatisfaction — much as we strive to listen more closely to the Israelites’ culinary complaints. 

We may not like what we hear but we must take others seriously. We do not need to compromise but we do need to listen carefully to our opponents so as to understand them. They, too, are created in the image of God. We may even think that our ideological opponents sound absurd, but if we write them off as nuts, we deprive ourselves of essential information about our society. 

Na’aseh v’nishma,” the Israelites said at Sinai — we first need to fulfill God’s commandments, and only thereafter do we “listen” or seek to comprehend God’s way. Action in pursuit of justice should always come first. But we should never skip over the second step. In addition to responding to the world’s endless challenges, we need to understand why our world is so broken in the first place. 

Following his ordination at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1996, Rabbi Bronstein went on to earn his doctorate in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Dan teaches in the department of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Hunter College.